For two days, D.C. United’s Perry Kitchen has thought hard about what went so terribly wrong for the U.S. under-23 national team at the Olympic qualifying tournament. It consumed him late into the night after the 3-3 draw with El Salvador on Monday in Nashville, a result that bounced the heavily favored Americans in the group stage.
On the flight to Washington on Tuesday as well, he and Bill Hamid, his U.S. and D.C. teammate, tried to make sense of it.
Kitchen rejoined United for training Wednesday, a week earlier than the club anticipated upon their departure for U.S. service earlier this month.
“One more day maybe to think about it and put it in the past,” Kitchen said.
United plays again Friday night against FC Dallas at RFK Stadium, and despite logging 90 minutes in each of the three qualifiers in a five-day span, Kitchen said he plans to be available.
“I think it will be a positive, to rebound and get my mind off of it and get back with this team because this is my main goal and focus,” he said.
Speaking for Hamid as well, Kitchen added: “For us, not to play in the Olympics, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and it’s gone.”
With his replacement, Marcelo Saragosa, recovering from a minor ankle injury, Kitchen might end up in the lineup Friday after missing two United matches.
“He’s a pretty determined kid,” Coach Ben Olsen said of the 20-year-old defensive midfielder who played center back for the U.S. squad. “We’re all gutted for him, and Bill as well. . . . They’re young kids, but the other side of that is, they’re young kids and they tend to rebound and move on and have short memories.”
While Kitchen reported to practice, Hamid will probably sit out a week with a sprained ankle and bone bruises that forced him out of Monday’s match in the first half.
Until Hamid is cleared to play, Joe Willis is expected to start. Willis has performed well in two starts and, because Hamid wasn’t supposed to return until next week, Willis and United have been preparing for him to play a third match.
“Joe has been fine,” Olsen said, “and we trust Joe if we have to use him.”
Goalkeepers coach Pat Onstad spoke with Hamid, 21, briefly.
“He seems pretty down” about the Olympic result, Onstad said. “For him, at this stage of his career, it’s probably the first big blow he’s going to face. I hate to say it to him, but he’ll go through a lot more bad blows too, but hopefully some highs as well. He’s just got to get over that. The injury may be a blessing in disguise to let him wrap his head around it.”
United remains without midfielder Andy Najar, whose Honduran squad will face El Salvador on Saturday in Kansas City, Kan., for an Olympic berth. Mexico will play Canada in the other deciding match.
Although a Honduras victory would likely result in Najar missing a long stretch of United’s season this summer, “I always root for Andy. I wish all three of them were going to be at the Olympics,” said Olsen, a 2000 U.S. Olympian. “Andy has a chance so hopefully he will get that experience.”
For United, the silver lining in the U.S. failure is the ability to retain Hamid and Kitchen all summer. Several other MLS clubs would’ve been impacted as well.
But the disappointment — and U.S. soccer soul-searching — will not soon recede.
“In 10 seconds, we were literally first place, top of the group, and 10 seconds later we’re third place, out of the tournament,” Kitchen said. “It was a hard one to swallow. All the guys felt it. The coaches were just as upset as we were. We have to move on. There’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. We’re a strong group of guys and we will rebound.”
It was, however, the second U.S. failure in a CONCACAF age-specific event in the past year. Last April, an under-20 squad that included Kitchen was upset by host Guatemala in the quarterfinals.
“This will never define us as an under-23 group or as individual players,” Kitchen said of the Olympic qualifying setback. “It hurts, and media can say whatever they want about it, but it won’t define us because we’re a strong group of guys.”
So what went wrong?
“I don’t want to [say] we already thought we were going to the Olympics, but in the end, we didn’t execute and got punished for it,” Kitchen said. “Having said that, in the El Salvador game, we showed a lot of character to come back from 2-1 down knowing we needed to win, and for whatever reason, it wasn’t meant to be. . . .
“You can go back and look: There were probably a hundred plays that every guy could’ve said, ‘I could’ve done this better.’ It was just closing it out. To be honest, the game that really hurt us was the Canada game [two days earlier], dropping all three points” in a 2-0 loss.
The results also tarnished the reputation of U.S. Coach Caleb Porter, a rising star in coaching circles and the mastermind behind the University of Akron’s rise to power.
“The guys loved him. They loved his philosophy, they loved his passion, and this will never define him either,” said Kitchen, who played one season at Akron. “He’s just as motivated as we are now to go out and become more successful.
“You never know how sweet a championship is or a big win is until you experienced what we experienced.”